When you are trying to conceive, it is important to become more aware of your reproductive cycle. From ovulation to menstruation, knowing the ins and outs of reproduction and fertilization can really help you to plan how and when to try and conceive. Most women are familiar with the ovulation process on a basic cycle, but what really happens when we ovulate? By monitoring your ovulation, you may actually be able to become pregnant faster and more easily.
What Is Ovulation?
So what exactly is female ovulation? Ovulation refers to that time when your ovary releases an egg for fertilization. It happens once a month and is a distinct stage of your menstrual cycle. Usually, one egg is released from your ovary about two weeks before you expect your period. For most women with a 28 day cycle, ovulation occurs on or around the 14th day. Some women have shorter or longer cycles, ranging anywhere from 21 to 35 days. Ovulation usually occurs sooner if you have a short cycle and later if you have a long cycle.
Hormones and Ovulation
Ovulation is regulated by special hormones that are released by different parts of your body. Your brain contains hormones that stimulate the growth and development of your eggs. Your ovaries contain female sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which help to release eggs during ovulation. It is the interplay between these hormones that triggers ovulation and menstruation.
Every woman is born with eggs which, when fertilized, develop into a baby. At birth, women have about 1 million of these eggs stored in their ovaries. By the time you start menstruating, you probably have about 400 000 eggs available for fertilization. Over time, the number of eggs that you have in your ovaries will decline, and you may not release an egg every month. Eventually, as you enter menopause, your body will only have a few hundred eggs left and you will probably not ovulate again due to a change in your hormone levels.
What Happens During Ovulation?
The ovulation cycle is dependent upon signals sent by your body. These signals are sent in the form of changing hormone levels; as your hormone levels increase and decrease, your body responds by triggering different phases of your menstrual cycle. Ovulation is dependent on signals sent from three main parts of your body:
- the hypothalamus (found in the brain)
- the pituitary gland (found at the base of the brain, near the spine)
- the ovaries (located on either side of your uterus)
As long as these hormonal messages are being sent, and in the right order, you should ovulate once every menstrual cycle. Ovulation stages include:
It is during the follicular phase that your eggs first begin to mature, in preparation for ovulation. The follicular phase occurs between the first day of menstruation and ovulation.
During the follicular phase, your hypothalamus releases gonadatropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), a special hormone which triggers your pituitary gland to act. In response, your pituitary gland releases a special hormone, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which triggers egg follicles to begin to mature within your ovaries. Between ten and twenty egg follicles will mature, each containing an egg ready to be fertilized. However, only one egg will complete the maturation process and be released into the fallopian tube.
During this phase your egg is released from its ovary. Triggered by estrogen from your ovaries, your pituitary gland releases luteinizing hormone (LH), which causes the egg to burst out of its follicle. The egg is released into the fallopian tubes, and can survive for 12 to 24 hours before dying.
After ovulation, the luteal phase begins. During this time, the leftover egg follicle turns into the corpus luteum, and releases both estrogen and progesterone in order to prepare for pregnancy. If you do not become pregnant, the corpus luteum dies, and you will begin your period.
Signs of Ovulation
Unlike other animals, humans do not show any outward signs of ovulation. However, there are a few subtle symptoms that you can look out for. By paying attention to these symptoms of ovulation, you will be able to predict when you are ovulating, and will be more likely to become pregnant. Ovulation symptoms include:
- mild abdominal discomfort or "ovulation cramps" (may be caused by rupturing of egg follicle)
- change in cervical mucous (will become clear, sticky, and stretchy)
- increase in basal body temperature (usually increases by 0.4 to 0.6 degrees)
- breast tenderness
- change in firmness of cervix
Ovulation is not always regular and this can often be a problem, especially if you are trying to conceive. These are a few lifestyle changes that you make to help to regulate your ovulation:
- Reduce your stress. Stress, fatigue, and emotional ups and downs can all affect ovulation. Try to manage your stress through relaxation or moderate exercise.
- Maintain proper nutrition. Don't skip meals, crash diet, or fast as this can wreak havoc on your menstrual cycle.
- Watch your weight. If you are seriously overweight or underweight your body may not be ovulating regularly.
- Don't exercise too much. Overdoing it can throw your body off its natural schedule and mess with your hormones.